I read on https://www.aei.org/publication/leisure-college-usa/ :

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Study time for full-time students at four-year colleges in the United States fell from twenty-four hours per week in 1961 to fourteen hours per week in 2003.

The authors give some inconclusive statement regarding the reasons behind the trend:

The decline is not explained by changes over time in student work status, parental education, major choice, or the type of institution students attended.

Evidence that declines in study time result from improvements in education technology is slim. A more plausible explanation is that achievement standards have fallen.

I wonder why the time spent studying has declined so sharply in the United States over the the past few decades. I am only looking for data-supported answers (or pointers to them).

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    Given that Facebook was launched in 2004, had they made the comparison a few years laters, they'd have observed an even larger drop in the study time :-) Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 20:48
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    Summary: "Kids these days, I tell ya". Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 1:47
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    One caveat: The linked article, including charts ("Source: Authors' calculations") and quotes is from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank -- not a peer-reviewed article. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 3:43
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    I'll add that the paragraph: The decline is not explained by changes over time in student work status, parental education, major choice, or the type of institution students attended. - is entirely incorrect. Student work status has unfortunately necessitated change (more work done), parents seem to be worse at showing their children the importance of education, major choice is extremely important in terms of in-school employment and thus affecting hours spent studying, and the institution can double between schools; financial responsibility is absolutely a factor. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 9:29
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    “Evidence that declines in study time result from improvements in education technology is slim.” Riiight. Computers & the Internet haven't made information that used to take hours of digging in book any easier to find. Nope, not at all. Haven't helped a bit. I call bullshit on that hypothesis. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 13:43

8 Answers 8


First, it is important to deploy your scientific skepticism in assessing this claim. The source, after all, is the American Enterprise Institute, which is a political "think tank" that is explicitly dedicated to pushing a particular point of view. Other key elements of its scientific record including taking tobacco company money to produce pro-smoking studies the 1980s and recent attacks on global warming.

There does, however, seem to be at least some difference there, and a deeper analysis of both the data and possible causes found that a major transition happened across the 1970s:

  1. Expansion of the student population to include many more people who are working to support themselves, parenting, commuting long distances, etc., which means they cannot devote as much time, and
  2. A shift in faculty requirements away from teaching and toward research, with a concomitant decrease in the amount of work that faculty are able to support asking from students.

From the early 1980s to today, however, the situation appears to have been more stable.

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    Personally I don't see the situation from the early 1980s to now to be stable. I would call it anything but. My uncle received an education in the exact same field as me 30 years ago. He painted houses 5 hours per week and was able to fully pay for his college expenses. I am 5.5 years through my education working 35 hours per week at $16/hour gross and still end up $10,000+ in debt per year, and I am not unwise with my budgeting. American education has changed so significantly in the past 3 decades that there is practically no comparison, especially financially. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 9:19
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    @ChrisCirefice That may well be true, but it is a different aspect of the situation than the question of how many hours people are using to study: when I say "the situation appears to have been more stable", I am referring to the conclusion the linked analysis makes that the average number of study hours has not declined significantly further.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 14:10
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    @Raphael My understanding of the analysis I am paraphrasing is that "full-time" refers to the number of credit-hours that a person is enrolled for, not whether they also have competing responsibilities. Likewise I do not believe that there is distinction between on-campus dormitories and off-campus housing, as those students all take their classes on-campus in the same classrooms.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 10:05
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    @Raphael, the linked study (McCormick) discusses Item 1 in various places—for example, in the paragraph that begins, "There is one other important point to make with regard to compositional differences in the student population between 1961 and 2003." McCormick points out that Babcock and Mark themselves "indicate that when hours worked and major were added to the analysis of compositional differences, the change in student population accounts for 18 percent of the drop in study time." [continued...]
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 20:48
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    @Raphael [...continued] McCormick argues later that demographic changes in student bodies may in fact account for more of the drop in reported study time; that's part of the point of McCormick's Table 2 and the text around it.
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 20:51

In 1961, one could easily get a good job paying a reasonable salary with the possibility of continued promotions without going to college. This is much less true in 2003, so many people are going to college not out of interest but as a default choice. Hence, while the population going to college in 1961 did so because they were interested in academics, many of the people going to college in 2003 don't actually want to study. Hence it is not surprising that, on average, they study less.

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    I agree with this; as a college student I see this all the time. It's sad, but that's reality. However, there is another perspective that should be explored - the academic that wants to study but simply can't; I explore this in my answer as an anecdote. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 9:14
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    Much less not true? More true?
    – Pål GD
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 9:33
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    @Raphael, going to university used to be about leaning, getting a degree was just seen as a nice side effect...
    – Ian
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 17:29
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    @Ian Yes, and I wish that were still true for most students. :/ Fact is, you (as a teacher, university offical or politician) can no longer assume a self-motivated student intrinsically interested in the material. Well, you can, but then your failure rates will go through the roof (if you maintain standards). Since there are all kinds of pressures for that not to happen, well...
    – Raphael
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 17:31
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    With some exaggeration, today's 4-year college is yesterday's high school. And what was available as public education is now bought at a high price from private (and even from public) colleges and universities. This is just one part of a 35 year trend toward privatization (in the US). All of the other things discussed (Internet etc.) apply to Europe etc. as well, but the problem raised is specifically American. (IOW, it ain't the Internet that's to blame.)
    – Drew
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 21:20

As much as I'd like to leave this as a comment, I just can't. So here's a semi-rant but very informative piece of an American student's experience, and why we don't spend as much time studying as we may have 20-30 years ago.

As a full-time student with parents who have fallen into essentially infinite debt due to tax and bankruptcy laws, I have zero financial support in college. My tuition and living expenses are about $18,000 per year and yet, amazingly, my federal + state aid totals about $12,000 per year (and this is 90% loans!). Yay America!

I had academic excellence scholarships my first two years, but when I transferred universities I lost the ability to obtain scholarships; the reason remains obfuscated to me to this day; universities are businesses!

So where does that leave me? Approximately $6,000 per year in deficit to my institution. I am incredibly fortunate to have chosen a major which has led me, after two years of hard work, to have two part-time jobs at approximately $14/hour each after taxes. I work these two jobs a total of 30-40 hours per week in order to pay off this deficit.

Now, imagine a full-time student who is in class 15 hours per week, with 10-20 hours per week of homework, working 30-40 hours per week to pay for school. The total? Approximately 60 hours per week spent on school and work, and not counting study time.

I satisfy the minimum requirements for my courses and work - I do my homework and work and pass my tests; believe me, I'd love to spend time studying more what I care about, but time does not permit. I am a lucky one in that I seemingly absorb information like a sponge and I don't have to spend time studying in order to satisfy university requirements. Others? They unfortunately have to spend 10+ hours per week studying to remember what they learned.

The point is, Americans in general have more financial assistance nowadays than before; ironically, the cost to students is much higher. Thus, many students like me need to work to afford school (even after taking out the maximum of federal loans per semester). In needing to work to afford school, we become trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy - students study less, care less about school, and drop out more, even though the cost (economically and personally) is more.

I study less because I have to do more to be able to go to school. I know that many others are in the exact same situation as me: less time caring about school and more time working part-time minimum-wage jobs to afford the ever-increasing tuition and living costs.

This is the current state of American public higher education, and it is not fun.

Edit: The issue of financial aid and taxes was brought up in the comments on this answer, so I'd like to talk about that in terms of the typical student.

Financial Aid

Financial aid can be broken down into 4 basic parts:

  1. Scholarships

    • Usually privately funded by individuals or organizations
    • Merit/need-based
    • Essentially "free money" (well, you worked for it in high school, so technically not "free")
  2. Grants

    • Usually funded by the federal government, state governments, or non-profit organizations
    • Usually need-based or promoting disadvantaged prospective students
    • This really is free money (for the student)
  3. Loans

    • Funded by the federal government or private entities
    • Paid for by the student (generally after graduation)
    • This is the opposite of free money. Loan servicers make thousands of dollars off the interest.
  4. Personal finances

    • Funded by the students' family members or themselves

The results

In my particular case, I receive $0/year in scholarships because I transferred universities and am no longer eligible to receive them; I receive about $1,500 per year in grants (the Pell Grant, specifically) because my parents make decent but not great money (middle class Americans); I borrow $10,500 per year in federal loans, and I fund the other $6,000 or so with my own personal finances.

The problem is that when this deficit occurs - when #1-#3 don't cover the entire cost of tuition + living expenses - it's up to the student or their family to pay it, and on time. Unfortunately, you can't just owe the university money when you graduate and pay it like a medical bill over time. You have to pay it up front or you don't get to register for classes; incidentally, if you don't register for classes for 6 months, you have to start paying your loans!

Like my family, the $6,000 per year to cover one child's education just isn't there. Most families I know don't even have $1,000 to spare, including mine. Thus, the student must take on the additional responsibility of working - and working a lot - because most jobs available to undergraduate students pay minimum wage. With some basic math, at $8/hour a student would need to work 15 hours/week year-round in order to make $6,000 to pay university costs. That is not time spent studying.

Even if I received the $6,000 per year in scholarships I was receiving at my first institution, I would still be borrowing $10,500 per year in loans. 4 years of that and the total debt after interest nears $47,000 and the interest continues to accrue during the repayment period. I am fortunate to be majoring in Computer Science, so I have very good job prospects to pay back such a balance. Others may not be so fortunate.

The solution?

As James mentioned in a comment, it seems that I was implying that we should increase the available financial aid (which would mostly be loans). In fact, we should instead work to solve the crisis of public education in America by reducing tuition costs. As mentioned, taxes play a big part in that.

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that cutting our $600 billion military budget by $50 billion to add to our currently $70 billion education budget would immediately solve a lot of problems for American students. Relieve the pressure from students to put themselves tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a bachelor's degree and maybe we would have more time to study. But I'll leave that project to the budget board that drives the future of our country.

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    Even though this is anecdotal, and the original statistic in the question seems poorly supported, I wouldn't be surprised if this were quite common. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 2:16
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    Chris, I am impressed with your full time studies while working 30-40 hours per week. Your story gives me hope for the future. However, I don't like your attitude towards the $12,000 per year in aid. I'm in the phase of life where I'm paying quite a bit of taxes. Part of that is going into grants and high-risk loans provided to students. You might want to remove the "zero financial support" from your first sentence. Instead of implying that financial aid should be raised, perhaps you should campaign for lower tuition fees.
    – James
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 15:08
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    @James Thank you, and valid point - the financial aid is obviously helpful, but the tax money you (and I) pay could be better spent toward education, reducing tuition costs and eliminating the need for such a large sum of financial aid. And, I guess I'm not an economist so it's probably more complicated that that - but, the $10,500 out of the $12,000 I mentioned is purely loans. I'm borrowing from the federal government, not receiving actual aid. That's just the maximum I can borrow per year, otherwise I would borrow $18,000 and not work so I could focus on school :) Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 15:41
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    @ChrisCirefice I assumed you were talking about Federal loans, which have a favorable interest rate. If your total interest is really $15,000 over ten years, then you are probably looking at a rate of between 6% and 7%. At the federal rate of 4.66%, your total interest would be about $10,000. That $5,000 difference is what I meant you would be "getting", although of course you're actually not losing it. But with a federal loan you would be getting value of the education and the ability to finance it for $5,000 less than "normal", which from a certain point of view is the government giving $5k. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 17:56
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    Such bickering about giving students low-interest loans and griping about paying taxes! In the rest of the developed world, higher education, at all levels, is essentially free. For everyone. And by "free" I do mean, yes, that the people as a whole pay for it, through taxes. (And the rest of the developed world does not have a New Guilded Age tax system skewed in favor of the wealthy.) America is short-sighted when it comes to educating its people, just as it is for so much else.
    – Drew
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 21:26

I'm surprised nobody seems to actually be examining the paper itself. I expect most here are academics, and this is a study after all. I did this and already found potential issues. I'm sure as you dig in further, you will find more to question. Like any study, one must first find potential flaws and address then with a follow-up study.

The authors are examining surveys from several time periods done by different organizations. There is very much a potential for framing effects, i.e. the way a question is asked can bias the answer. The authors then seek to remedy this by taking variations on the survey questions and asking them to current students at a single major university in California. They then use the variation in answers and use that to adjust the results of the surveys.

There are two problems with this:

1) it addresses only the framing effect and introduces its own flaw, which is that they are randomizing across students today at a single university in California. There's no reason to believe that a student from 1961 from a different university would answer the same question in the same manner as a student from 2010 from that particular university.

2) In fact, I'm skeptical that they properly addressed the framing. As I looked into how the datasets were gathered, I found they were gathered in very different ways and I can't imagine how you could remedy this by just giving students randomized survey questions at the end of class. For example, the time-use survey from 1965 was done by asking respondents to keep a diary. Then this was followed-up by an in-person interview. Would results gathered in this way differ than asking people to fill out a form at the end of class? In fact, it's well-known that one way to bias a study is to ask people to keep careful records. By asking people to think whether they spend their time doing X, you actually influence the time they spend on X. In this case, I imagine asking students to keep track of their study time would definitely affect the time they spend studying!

Given these issues that arose immediately from just a quick glance at the paper, I would say one should keep a skeptical mind about these types of research papers, especially when the authors don't make it easy to refute their claims; I wasn't able to find the survey questions they used, for example, to address the framing effect, nor did I find any discussion of how they addressed the differences in data gathering or record keeping.

  • If you ask about time spent studying for different classes and add up, you'll get more than 100 hours/week. Guaranteed.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 0:29
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    I do not believe this paper. It is not peer reviewed. It is made to look like an academic journal but it is not. It is produced by a conservative think thank and hence is unlikely neutral. The methods are questionable. Did anyone find error information? I suggest skepticism. They draw conclusions their methods cannot support. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 5:10
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    Excellent point, and the first thing that occurred to me: how can they possibly measure this accurately across so many decades and so many different colleges and student-contexts? The only way to measure it at all is by asking students, which means you're really just measuring students self-impressions of how much they study, which is already inherently inaccurate in concept alone... Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 15:52
  • @RBarryYoung There are lots of ways to measure study time. For example, I could operationally define study time as time spent in the library. Step 1: choose the operational definition that give you the result you want.
    – emory
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 9:51
  • @emory Yes, but that is not an accurate nor meaningful way to measure actual student study time, which is my point: Any claim to have done so is highly suspect. Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 18:17

Part of the reason could be more political pressure/prioritization to produce higher number of graduates, which has resulted in lower achievement standards, and hence easier coursework. As a related example from secondary education:

Most established tragically low expectations. President George W. Bush’s 2002 education reform, “No Child Left Behind,” only worsened this problem. It set the impossible requirement that 100% of students be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014, and punished schools that weren’t making adequate progress.

To bring themselves closer to 100%, many states simply lowered the score needed to pass their tests. The result: In 2007, Mississippi judged 90% of its fourth graders “proficient” on the state’s reading test, yet only 19% measured up on a standardized national exam given every two years. In Georgia, 82% of eighth-graders met the state’s minimums in math, while just 25% passed the national test. A yawning “honesty gap,” as it came to be known, prevailed in most states.


I know at the community college where I teach, a combination of pressure for higher graduation numbers, and also concern for students holding full-time jobs and caretaking families, has over time led to simplified coursework and fewer outside homework assignments.


Why would the students of 1961 spend more time "studying" than students today?

In 1961 in the US, there was military conscription. Students who flunked out could be drafted and sent into the combat zone.

In addition, many universities had mandatory ROTC. When your ROTC instructor plows through, it is better for you if you are studying than if you are goofing off. If you can goof off with a book in your hands, you are "studying".

Is there a decline in educational excellence

Yes, there is a well documented decline in educational excellence. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/11/19/dreams-of-better-schools/

In some respects, it has always been so. With the possible exceptions of the postal service and the motor vehicle bureau, few public institutions rival our schools in public dissatisfaction. “We can all agree,” according to the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, “that American public schools are a joke”—and it is not hard to find comparable statements from commentators on the left.

What should one make of such claims? In a study published more than a decade ago by the Century Foundation, Richard Rothstein, who later became an education columnist for The New York Times, rattled off a list of similar lamentations stretching back more than 150 years. As early as 1845, when the nation’s first standardized test was administered to a group of fourteen-year-olds under the direction of Horace Mann, the examiners were shocked by the “absurd answers,…errors in grammar, in punctuation and in spelling.” Writing in 1902, the editors of the New York Sun declared that America’s schools had sunk to the level of “a vaudeville show.” By 1955, a best-selling book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, charged that the failure of the schools was “gradually destroying democracy.”

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    Hesiod has been reported saying "When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint". True. But I can - as one single point of reference - compare the levels of education when I was studying at university to the level now, and it has massively dropped. We had covered in the first year material which now takes 2-3 years to cover (if at all). True, we were not business-savvy and were not internet-streetwise, so that's where the extra intellectual resources may have been redirected nowadays. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 14:20
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    @CaptainEmacs Correct. The decline in academic excellence has been going on since at least 750 BCE and probably longer. Professors tend to graduate from highly competitive universities and teach at less competitive universities. If a professor graduated from a less competitive university and ended up teaching at a highly competitive university s/he would probably think that academic excellence has gone up from his/her school days.
    – emory
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 14:39
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    Excellent point, very perceptive, I upvoted you. However, I am still in contact with my alma mater and I am afraid to say, the same effect, albeit weaker (so that's why I agree you have a point), is visible there. A recently published study suggests grade inflation in the US where the notable exception was Princeton. So, it may be a real effect after all, and our patronisation of the elders actually inappropriate. Rather, the system may be "ratcheting back" to quality whenever the "leidensdruck" ("suffering") becomes too high and true (rather then pseudo-)reforms are undertaken. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 16:48
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    I'm not upvoting this, because the "Yes" in the 2nd part of the answer seems contradicted by the quote -- or perhaps it's a sarcastic commentary, in light of the conventional counterargument that "elders have have always groused about the youth and therefore they must be wrong". But at our institution, for example, we could absolutely show documentation of testing material over the last 50 years or so that shows the assessments getting much easier and more rudimentary over time. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 19:57
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    @DanielR.Collins It is my belief (for which I do not have evidence to share) that in general students today are better than students of yesteryear. This belief is not necessarily inconsistent with academic decline at your institution.
    – emory
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 20:25

In think the answer given that states "standards have fallen" - which is mentioned by your study authors is pretty much the reason.

However, there is a bit more to it - at least at a guess.

For example, here in the UK, successive governments have been league-table obsessive with the deranged expectation that the performance of schools and students can be measured accurately. Along the way, GCSEs are also graded based on statistics where the most frequent mark is a middle C and the rest are arranged around it - this means worse performance by all does not result in worse marks.

But coming back to the league tables and rankings: A bit issue of ranking is that nobody wins when someone does badly but everybody wins when they do well. Exam boards have no incentive to provide hard papers, as schools prefer to pick the easy one - for a good ranking.

In addition, the current UK system relies a lot on fairly simple tests that can be marked quickly by the teachers paid to do so (still takes months...) - from questions that guide you, to multiple choice questions (at A-level at least). Especially multiple choice questions can also be solved by deduction rather than knowledge. In addition the format of today's questions has changed a lot. In the past one may have asked you have a system with A, B, C, D work out X, Y, Z. Today you would be given a system with A, B, C, D, told to work out X, then assume it is H, continue on to Y, assume it is I and then continue on to Z.

And there is technology: In the past, if students wanted to cheat, they would spend a lot of time preparing their notes somehow, however the act of preparing notes is effectively revising. Today, a student wishing to cheat would more likely try to use a mobile to google an answer.

And lastly, "learning to pass the test". I guess partially due to the ubiquitous access to "knowledge" on the internet, actually learning has become less important. It has become fairly standard to learn for tests only with students "cramming" before a test and then forgetting everything later... Incidentally, simple questions that are easy to mark are a part of the problem here, if questions required and actual understanding of the problem, more time would have to be spent revising.

  • Most of this I have seen since 1970 or so, with rather little change.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 2:04
  • I personally feel you're more or less right, but this is really more of a rant than a stackexchange answer, as I hope you can see
    – Au101
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 2:04
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    @Au101 - I suppose it is both. Is it a bit of a rant? Yes. But it is also the answer. Having said that, I won't stop anybody from editing bits that they feel are badly worded (or potentially incorrect). Given that Stackexchange also puts dates on posts, there wouldn't be any mistaking the answer should things change in the future as it would be linked to our current time.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 3:08
  • Note that the 'technology' you mention was not the same in 2003 as it is today. Smartphones were extremely uncommon in 2003. iPhone wasn't released until 2007 and Android was released in 2008. The old Palm devices before that time were very slow (as were the pre-3G iPhones, for that matter) and were quite uncommon. We did have graphing calculators and laptops, but it was generally obvious if you were using a laptop during an exam and putting notes in a graphing calculator wasn't much easier than sneaking them in on paper.
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 19:40
  • While I can't speak for the U.K., I was in college in the U.S. shortly after the time of the second data set (I started in 2004) and I would say that basically none of what is mentioned here is really the answer for why the average time spent studying for college students in the U.S. Nearly 100% of the difference can almost certainly be explained by the fact that the top two thirds of students go to college now, whereas it was something more like 20% back in the 1960s. The average study time of the top 67% is less than the average of the top 20%. This is not really surprising.
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 19:54

The source article is not very clear on the definition of "study time", and it appears to be inconsistent with federal law.

In order to be eligible for federal student aid, a student must be enrolled in a full time course of study. 14 hours per week of study time do not qualify as full time studying. For financial aid purposes, full time is 12 credit hours for undergraduates, or 9 credit hours for graduate students.


At the school where I teach, this usually translates to taking three classes of 4 or 4.5 credit hours per quarter. Each class requires about 4-5 hours of classroom time, plus another 8-10 hours of prep/homework time, for a total just shy of 40 hours.

This article claims a "study time" of 14 hours in 2003. My best guess is that they are only referring to classroom time. If that is the case, the statistics may simply indicate a shift from classroom time to homework from 1961 to 2003.

There are other possible explanations.

What is needed is a more rigorous definition of what this study was actually looking at.

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    The article seems clear to me; it says that the data comes from time-use surveys which "asked students to report the number of hours per week they spend studying outside of class." This answer doesn't seem relevant.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 9:22

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